Anna Dusseau | 16th September 2020
I want you to consider the possibility that school is damaging your child. I want you to consider, too, the possibility that you have been damaged by your own schooling, and that you carry this with you when you talk about education. We all know that schools shape lives and we are led to assume that this should have a positive influence. Our own Prime Minister calls upon our “moral duty” to send children back to the classroom, and the language of good vs evil is palpable here. Facebook groups of school parents unite to send a clear message: “our children need school…it is where they belong.” In truth, we do very little to unpick this logic, this terminology of what children “need” and of where they should “be”. The fact that the majority of academic writing on the subject of schooling paints an overwhelmingly negative vision of the system is irrelevant because this is not what people are listening to. They listen to their heart, and their heart was shaped behind the bars of the school gates. It is within this context that we can better appreciate the outpouring of negativity thrown at home education throughout Lockdown, and into the balmy month of September here in the UK. It is painful to contemplate freedoms we never had ourselves; to observe the shafts of the cart we never knew we – and our children – were pulling. For many of us, it is too much.
Just a few weeks ago, in this same magazine, I read an article which painted precisely such a dark and disturbing vision of homeschooling. The crux of it was that family life and, in particular, “learning” appeared to fall apart at the seams when the framework of school was removed. “My academic and driven middle child ended the term utterly unengaged and miserable,” commented one parent. “It was a nightmare.” And I don’t doubt that these feelings are real. What deserves some attention though, as a starting point, is why the happiness of modern family life should be so reliant on the incredibly recent invention of compulsory schooling and, since we are here, what exactly is “driving” school children in the first place. It’s an odd term. In the late 90s, Tony Blair’s education policy was all about “driving up standards”, a word choice which, coupled with the aggressive and interlinked audit culture expansion, seemed to appropriately conjure a vision of teachers being chased up a hill with a stick. We typically say a person is “driven” when they are fixated on a single goal, and the internal herdsman is their own self-interest. How, then, does this apply to a child? What exactly are they urging themselves towards or, if the stick is not in their own hand, being propelled by? We surely cannot say “education” – that delicate derivative of the Latin educare, meaning “to nourish or grow” – and so perhaps we might say “the future” or even, more specifically, “sitting his or her examinations.” Are these the passions that set children ablaze nowadays? Do they ignite your soul, too? I suppose, in a way, they must do.
We have all learnt a specific language for discussing school, based on what we are fed through the media, from government and, of course, during our own years of compulsory schooling. In spite of the fact that we learn, for example, the complex mechanics of human speech and movement purely from observation and intrinsic motivation, we believe that we lose this instinct when we enter the school system. Suddenly, we value only the opinion of “experts” and learn to sit in a circle, being taught the songs and numbers that are considered important. We learn to value house points, grades, and gold stickers. We cry if we receive 3/10 and quietly triumph over our neighbour if we receive 10/10. Without knowing it, we are weaving the fabric of the society we will end up living in. Importantly, we also become quickly immune to the unquestioned authority of the teacher, and fail to notice that the most enduring lesson of our school days is “how to live in a dictatorship.” (Llewelyn, 1991) Not being conscious of the more insidious ways that schooling shapes the soul, we leave school in the same way many depart from military service: fundamentally changed. Our thoughts and values are no longer our own – no more than the goals we are “driven” towards – and we come to hate freedom, to fear it, and – like the flock of sheep who remain in a corner of the field even after the coral is lifted – to believe that we are actually better off living within the confines of rigid authority. It may surprise you to know that this is precisely what school was designed to do.
In C19th Prussia, the first compulsory school system was born out of military defeat and the political need to reinvent industry and shape Prussian society through “a new utopian institution of forced schooling.” (Gatto, 1991) For various political and economic reasons, compulsory state schooling was adopted throughout the western world over the course of the century, with the 1870 Education Act introducing the schoolhouse as a solution to providing useful and compliant workers for an industrial society. At this point in history, far from an idealistic institution providing supposed “opportunity for all”, the school was explicitly conceived as an instrument of social control and design, in precisely the same way that Britain and other wealthy nations exploited colonial countries within their vast empires. The base line of schooling was to educate and shape the general public (aristocratic children were, of course, not subjected to this humiliation) for purposeful engagement in the engineered society of the day. Whatever the educational buzzword of the time, however, it all boils down to the same thing: then and now, what children do in school all amounts to what psychologist Peter Gray calls “busy work”. That is, constant low-level clerical work designed to keep minds occupied and hence, a passive and “manageable” public. Indeed, the fact that we have all spent 12 years bowing our heads in this system may well be a contributing factor to our astonishing political inertia. What’s the point of voting? many of us genuinely believe. Our school days are also the reason why we see newspapers presenting nonsense as fact, and the public happily swallowing it whole. If, during Lockdown, “2.3 million children [were] learning for less than one hour per day” (Sunday Times, 2020) what, we might reasonably ask, were they doing for the other 23 hours? Only we don’t; we don’t ask at all. This is not something we were taught how to do.
Interestingly, in articles of this type, and in parenting discourse more generally, the subjects of discussion – the children themselves – are almost universally absent. I have lost count of the number of parents I have heard lamenting how much their child “misses school” and how it is “unfair” to keep schools closed, yet I have never actually heard these words coming from the mouth of a child. Never mind. The adult lens with which we perceive childhood is focused such that it would appear churlish to even consider the opinion of children in most cases. We know, in our adult wisdom, that if they are acting up, it’s because they are over-tired. If they are pushing their younger sibling around, it’s because they are missing their friends. And if they unravel entirely in their teenage years – turning to drugs, alcohol, or other forms of self-harm – it is surely because they missed a grade somewhere, fell behind in their “education” and were, overall, a “bad egg”. None of this could possibly be due to the fact that children, in the vitality of their youth and energy, feel the pinch and rub of the harness that adults have become accustomed to. Of course not. Children don’t know their own minds; they must be “schooled” before they can be taken seriously and, even then, only if they reiterate the accepted societal values. Thus, we complain loudly about the “inconvenience” of our children being thrust upon us during the pandemic, as if they are a burden to our “purposeful” and “driven” adult world. Thus, we smile brightly when they complete a worksheet on the respiratory system and call them down from their rooms if they are lying idly on their beds. Thus, when a school is praised for its provision during Lockdown, the Head will “attribute her success to the determination of her team.” (Sunday Times, 2020) Determination, presumably, to “drive” children to learn. The kids themselves – their hopes and dreams – don’t feature at all.
And these are not, of course, families who have chosen Elective Home Education. I do appreciate that. The families consulted in the countless toxic articles regarding the “horrors” of “homeschooling” during Lockdown are, almost exclusively, parents for whom – knowingly or unknowingly – school constitutes the framework around which their work, ideology, and relationship with their children is constructed. It is no wonder that we hear these parents describing a world falling apart when the “benevolent”, guiding hand of the institution is temporarily withdrawn. This is why zoo animals cannot survive outside captivity. It is also why addicts find themselves in rehab again and again and again. But, most significantly, people who feel this way are mostly unaware of their own imprisonment; they haven’t contemplated the alternative viewpoints and evidence which contradicts their beliefs. To the parent who feels their “academic” child needs school, I put it to you that truly “able” children have mostly thrived during Lockdown, and that the general consensus of parental opinion on groups such as Potential Plus UK shows gifted children rising to the challenge of “off-script” learning and the opportunity to take “deep dives” into their favourite topics. To the parent who says family life has descended into chaos without the daily routine of school, I put it to you that many, many others have said the opposite: that Lockdown has initiated an important “healing process” for their family through which stronger bonds and an easier rapport has emerged. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow put it: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Are you holding a hammer right now, or are your hands free to link fingers with your three-year-old, make daisy chains, and feel the breeze on your palms?
My children don’t go to school. On Monday, I swam out into the ocean with my eldest, a long way. The water became colder the further we went, and the boys on the shore with their dad became distant figures, racing back and forth, crouching down to peer at crabs in buckets. “Are we done?” I asked. “Shall we head back?” “I don’t know,” my eldest replied, looking out at the horizon. “How far can we go?” I was quiet as we swam back, thinking about how radically my children have changed since choosing to leave school and home educate. I use the word “radical” in the true sense of the term, meaning “root”. They are like trees planted in different soil. We don’t learn from a curriculum, although many homeschooling families do, and more than anything else, what I notice is an optimism, a playfulness, a freedom of thought and creativity, which had started to evaporate almost the moment I straightened their ties on the first day of school. Most of the schools I worked in had ties, too, and the “top button rule” was a common feature of behaviour management. Children must wear their ties properly, with top button fastened at all times, we teachers were told. Failure to do so resulted in detention and, so the theory went, by keeping the seething masses in line with this kind of trivia, the school managed to avoid the escalation of more serious behavioural issues. Similarly, most people spend their schooldays and then their entire adult lives engaged in “busy work”, never really looking up to seek the horizon. I am sorry if the closure of schools has been truly harrowing for you. I am sorry too, for the parent who proclaimed that she didn’t know “what [would] happen” (Sunday Times, 2020) to her son, if schools didn’t reopen in September. I hear your fear and, sometimes, I feel it too. The world is an uncertain place and, most scary of all, is treading our own path in life. The truth is, when we choose to home educate our children, they too may sink, along with countless others drowned and forgotten by the catastrophic failure of the great school experiment. But maybe – just maybe – they might keep swimming.